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Robert Mathis' most amazing feat is simple: He made Indianapolis Colts fans forget Dwight Freeney.
Colts fans still appreciate Freeney's remarkable run, no doubt about that. He'll go in the team's Ring of Honor one day. He has an argument for the Hall of Fame. He was the defense's version of Peyton Manning for most of Manning's run in Indy.
But Mathis' record-setting 2013 season has relegated Freeney to the rearview mirror.
“In my book, (Mathis) is the MVP,” Colts defensive end Cory Redding said. “And in my book, he's Defensive Player of the Universe.”
Say what you will about Andrew Luck's play in leading the Colts back from a 28-point deficit to a 45-44 win over the Kansas City Chiefs on Saturday in their AFC wild-card playoff game. Everything said about Luck is legitimate. He came through in the clutch.
Here's another truth: Luck doesn't get his chance without Mathis' sack/strip of Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith.
“We know (Mathis') motor doesn't stop on the field,” Redding said. “When his team needs him the most, he steps up and makes a play. That's what great leaders do.”
For 10 years, Mathis was Robin (an extremely fit, large Robin) to Freeney's Batman. While Mathis racked up his fair share of sacks, many credited his success to the fact teams were game-planning and double-teaming Freeney. Yet he's had his best season, somewhat inexplicably, in his 11th year at age 32, with Freeney gone.
All of those seasons, Mathis was the team player, never begrudging Freeney his attention or his status. Mathis was always working, always honing his craft. When Mathis talks with the media, he's insightful, thoughtful, playful and witty. But he's not the type to go searching for the reporters or the cameras.
They've come to him this season, as he broke Freeney's Colts records for sacks in a season and a career, marks Mathis now holds at 19.5 this season and 111 in his career. He became only the second player over age 30 to lead the NFL in sacks. The first, who did it twice, was retired New York Giants star Michael Strahan.
The next sack is always the biggest, of course, and New England's great Tom Brady awaits at 8:15 p.m. Saturday in Gillette Stadium, Foxboro, Mass.
Redding finds Mathis' success with the sack/strip – he has an NFL-record 45 – to be all the more impressive because quarterbacks know he's coming. They just don't know when.
“He finds a way to get to the quarterback and when he gets there, he finds a way to get the ball out,” Redding said. “Quarterbacks know that, and he still does it.”
His sack/strip of Smith is his second-most memorable one of the season (so far), trailing only the sack/strip of former teammate Peyton Manning that gave the Colts a safety in their win over the Broncos. He says he never knows when that sack or sack/strip is going to happen.
“You just have to go,” Mathis said. “You never know when it's going to come.”
“He's a continuous turnover machine,” Colts linebacker Jerrell Freeman said.
Brady's skills are well-documented, but he has been vulnerable to sacks this season and he's not the most mobile quarterback the Colts will have faced. He compensates for any lack of mobility with his quick release and intelligence.
Brady has been sacked 40 times this season, and with Mathis moving around from the left to right side, depending on alignments, he'll need his offensive line to be aware of Mathis at all times.
“We've certainly seen every play that they've had on defense this year, and he's as disruptive a player on the edge as we have played or will play,” Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said. “He's got great speed and acceleration. He certainly does a great job of turning the corner. He is very rarely on the ground and his motor, his effort are incredible. You can't ever assume that, 'Well I did enough,' because if you assume that then usually he ends up finishing the play better than you did and a lot of times that ends up in a bad situation for the offense.”
Mathis puts teams in bad situations? That's about as good a description of what he's done this season as any.
If he can do it again Saturday night, the Colts might have another surprise in their future.